Conversation management in a police force: an interview with Steven De Smet

Home Conversation management in a police force: an interview with Steven De Smet

Steven De Smet1. What is the power of ‘conversations’ and ‘social media’ for your organization?

Social media, and conversations via these media, are a reality in today’s society. It’s clear that social media are here to stay and that it’s not just a passing trend…

The impact of media was very important when the Ghent police force was reformed. Especially the impact of the television series ‘Flikken’ (‘Cops’) is noteworthy; people started talking in a very personal way about ‘their police force’ and ‘their cops’. It was the perfect foundation to join the conversation with our citizens.

I believe that the impact of social media today is even bigger. As a consequence, we want to spread our vision on this topic to create a support system internally. Ghent is the largest student city in Belgium. We have to be innovative; we have to keep on reaching out to young people, and start involving them by making use of these new forms of media.

2. Who convinced you to start thinking about concrete actions?

My 15-year-old nephew did. I’ve been looking at our police force through his eyes for years now. It helped me to see certain things in a different perspective.

From his very own bedroom, Matisse can play videogames with people from around the globe or get in touch with peers from all over the world. So don’t tell me youngsters are not social anymore. They have much more social contacts than previous generations, and we shouldn’t be afraid of this evolution. We have to think about the opportunities.

3. How exactly do you leverage the power of conversations and social media? And what is the underlying purpose?

In my paper “A social media strategy for police forces” I specifically described all social media options for our police force. It deals with job information (recruitment), passing on traffic information, online availability for citizens (a virtual form of local police work) and an increased accessibility for young people (student inspectors).

The underlying philosophy is the ‘community-oriented police care’ – program, a model that takes into account the input of citizens, solves problems more efficiently and above all: emphasizes partnership.

The police force is a governmental organization, but that should not limit us in paying attention to developments in the corporate business world. The paper I wrote is a vision for the future. I support the vision of a corporate communication for each communication department.

4. What real-life examples illustrate the importance of the dialogue?

We have experienced a number of real-life examples lately: the Ghent mayor addressing Dutch football fans via Youtube, controversial pictures of police officers during the City Parade appearing on Facebook,…

We are using social media in a proactive way as well: through a number of blogs that we created, our projects can reach an audience that is interested and committed, people who could not easily be involved before. The “Flikken” (Cops) comic fanpage for example is a success on Facebook. Today, we can reach target groups and age categories that were very hard to involve in the past.

5. What are the key factors for success?

Our presence on social platforms does not remain unseen. I get an increasing number of official questions on my Facebook page for example. Questions and comments that I actually have to forward to other departments within our police force and even to other local police teams, since Facebook reaches many citizens outside the Ghent area of course.

We get lots of positive reactions from other police forces. And also from the academic & corporate world: we collaborate with university students on several projects, and I am invited at different fora to talk about our vision on this matter.

Success is mainly in the cross-media story. On the one hand, social media allows us to pass on information much faster and easier, also to regular media. We are available non-stop and we can react to questions and remarks immediately . On the other hand, by using our own media we can share news and information that is of less interest for regular media.

6. Who takes the lead internally? Who are the conversation managers within your organization?

We are still in an experimental phase, in which we are carefully trying out social fora and platforms. The official start of the social media implementation is scheduled after the appointment of the new Superintendant in March 2011.

Within this new vision, we are currently building a structure of communication managers in different police departments (traffic department, criminal investigation department, youth departments, local police inspectors…). That way we want to achieve a united management and a shared responsibility.

7. ‘Anyone’ can start a conversation ‘anytime’. So how do you deal with the 24/7 context?

The 24/7 context is not new for us; the police department is organized to be present all the time, and to start the conversation ‘anytime’.

8. What KPIs do you keep in mind when measuring the impact of your actions?

As I said before, we are still experimenting in order to learn more about the possibilities of conversations & social media. That is why, at this stage, we do not measure nor keep track of structured results. We intend to do so in the near future, because it’s of vital importance. Fortunately, we can collaborate with the Ghent University and the Artevelde Hogeschool students to set up our measurements.

9. What are the key aspects of your social media policy and what exactly is the power of that policy?

A number of guidelines need to be followed. We want to provide something to hold on to for both our professional communicators and for our people who are actively online in their spare time. The guidelines are based on our mission, the vision and the values, that were determined by the department management of our police district.

The 5 following guidelines help to avoid most problems:

  • Transparency: identify yourself and write in your own name (cfr. ‘Join as a peer’ – Steven Van Belleghem). Clarify your relation to the subject. Do not create false messages or fake accounts to communicate about the Ghent police department.

  • Respect the copyright laws, brand laws, publicity laws and other laws: do not copy other people’s texts without their explicit consent. Only quote other people if you explicitly mention their name. Do not claim someone else’s rights.

  • Responsible use of technology: do not use (or associate with) websites or software that use adware, malware, viruses, spyware or excessive tracking software.

  • Respect your audience: do not publish any false, misleading, obscene, blasphemous, belittling, vulgar, discriminating, threatening, bullying, insulting, hateful or humiliating information on online platforms.

  • Look before you leap: if you are on the verge of publishing something that you are not 100% certain about, read these guidelines and the following ones again. If still in doubt, do not publish anything. Postpone it and talk about it with someone.

10. What are mistakes you’ve made in this context that can be avoided by others?

The biggest ‘mistake’ we made is that, because of our burning enthusiasm , we might have been a little too fast in spreading our vision on social media & conversations. Our desire to get started was based on the enthusiasm of a number of key people, without having the necessary strong bearing surface within the organization.

The beginning of learning: a motive, a mission: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Thanks for sharing your viewpoints Steven!